Sunday, June 28, 2020

US, China spar over the Philippines

The fishermen of Masinloc and Sta. Cruz, Zambales had fished the Scarborough Shoal for generations. In the past several years, Filipino fishing boats had been harassed and prevented from fishing near the fish-rich shoal by incursions of Chinese fishing and militia boats.

In June 2019, a Chinese militia ship sank a Filipino boat in the South China Sea in an act of aggression that left the Philippines looking weak and powerless. The Chinese Navy has boldly sailed its aircraft carrier and escort ships through the Philippines’ Sibutu Passage without prior permission, violating Philippine sovereignty. China is claiming almost all of the territory of the South China Sea that includes the West Philippine Sea within the nine-dash line that it has drawn around the edge of the South China Sea.

The Scarborough Shoal, the Spratlys and Pag-asa groups of islands and other islands are well within the Philippines’ 12-nautical mile territorial sea and the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. In the face of Chinese claims, this right has been upheld by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. In a historic decision, the court declared “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line.” “Having found that none of the features claimed by China was capable of generating an exclusive economic zone, the tribunal found that it could — without delimiting a boundary — declare that certain sea areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China.”

China does not recognize the international arbitration decision and did not attend the hearings. Instead, it continued to build up its military power on several islands claimed by the Philippines, installing long-range surface to air missiles and building structures and aircraft runways. In a belated response, the Philippines began in 2020 to build up infrastructure on Pag-asa Island, one of its biggest inhabited islands on the Spratly Islands.
Despite Chinese objections, after two years of delay, the Philippines has built a landing ramp and a wharf for small ships to dock and land equipment to pave the existing 1.2-kilometer dirt runway.  Pag-asa Island is just 26 kilometers northeast of the Subi Reef, now a large Chinese military installation (one of several) on a man-made island and armed to the teeth but is within Philippines territorial waters.

The Chinese send their warships through Philippine territorial waters as if they own them.

In 2018, 35 Chinese naval ships traversed Philippine territorial waters without prior permission, which is a violation of Philippine sovereignty. The Philippine defense department said that in 2018, as many as 434 Chinese ships sailed through Philippine waters without prior notice and in 2019, the number was 389 ships. For sure, the source of this information is from the United States Navy, which keeps a close watch on all ship movements in the region.

The US has sent its warships past the islands claimed by the Chinese to establish that they are in international waters and they have the “freedom of navigation.” They are challenging the naval might of the Chinese Navy that cannot thwart them without starting World War 3.

The Chinese taunting of the Philippines and probing of the US response is a very serious problem for the Philippines. The country is caught in the middle of a global power struggle.

The Chinese claim the area by “power of possession.” It is an adverse and illegal possession by international law, which they ignore. The Philippines is powerless to stop them and the US will not intervene. It is as if China is annexing Philippine territory. The Chinese will benefit by drilling for oil and mining minerals in the ocean’s depths and the Philippines will lose its rightful natural resources. So it is not just the hundreds of tons of fish that the Chinese are taking every day from Philippine waters but soon they will be exploiting the rest of the Philippine natural resources.  In  2016, the Philippine government put aside these concerns and entered into a new relationship of friendship with China and took out huge loans from the Chinese government, creating a debt bondage relationship.

The only check to the powerful Chinese Navy is the US, ruler of the waves in the Asian region for decades and is still a force to be reckoned with. The US lost access to its huge military bases in the Philippines in 1992.This was caused by the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991, diplomatic blunders and a strong social and human rights campaign by nongovernment organizations. Started and led by Preda Foundation, they campaigned successfully to convert the bases to Filipino civilian use because of the sexual exploitation of women and children in the huge military-driven sex industry.
On May 27, 1999, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) came into force. This allows the US access to Philippine airfields and navy ships to dock in Philippine ports. There are three at present at Subic Bay. On Feb. 11, 2020, however, the Philippine government suddenly announced the termination of the VFA, causing consternation in Washington because of the denial of a US visa to a political ally of President Rodrigo Duterte. The termination was due to take effect on Aug. 11, 2020. The Chinese were delighted, always seeking ways to lure allies away from the US and weaken the US military presence in the Asian-Pacific region.

But, Filipinos with millions of relatives in the United States and thousands planning to join them much prefer the pact with the US than a deal with the Chinese Liberation Army.

So on June 3, 2020, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. announced that the Philippine government would extend the VFA at least until the end of the year. This may be to counter the dominating Chinese presence or a negotiating tactic to wring more concessions from the US. Only time will tell.

Source:  Fr. Shay Cullen, SSC